Three Civil and Environmental Engineering Ph.D. students, Christina Reynolds, Kevin Fries and Matt Vedrin, attended the inaugural UNLEASH Lab conference in Denmark in August.
UNLEASH Lab was a 9-day event that brought together innovators from all over the world to focus on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Applicants for UNLEASH presented a sustainability problem and provided a detailed plan for solving that problem. 1,000 SDG Talents, from over 129 countries, were selected to attend the conference. SDG Talents, a.k.a “ millennial disruptors,” were carefully selected based on their innovative ideas and experience. The talent pool drew from tech entrepreneurs, leading academics, and young development program officers.
The attendees were put into groups based on seven different SDG themes; Health, Food, Water, Education & ICT, Energy, Urban Sustainability, and Sustainable Consumption & Production. Christina Reynolds’ UNLEASH project focused on energy sustainability. Kevin Fries and Matt Vedrin focused their projects on the theme of water sustainability.
“I was a part of the water theme and specifically within that I was focused on access and governance. A lot of the teams focused on creating data sharing platforms, but my team looked at the problem from a different angle, seeing that many data sharing platforms already exist but aren’t being leveraged,” said Kevin Fries.
“We became concerned with how to make data actionable for decision makers. So our project sought to create a benchmarking platform where municipalities could have their data management practices audited and assessed across three broad areas: data quantity/quality, data accessibility and data impact,” Fries added.
During the first few day of the UNLEASH conference, participants talked about project goals and took part in small case challenges with experts. They toured a range of innovative companies around Copenhagen.
Next, the SDG Talents went into the danish countryside, visiting Denmark institutions called Folk High Schools. There they worked on problem framing, narrowing the field down to 10 key sustainability issues, before breaking up into teams of 3-6 people. The teams spent 2 days creating a full SDG implementation plan, including a business model and a financial model. Facilitators from engineering firms were on-hand to advise. After presenting their plans to each other within the theme, the teams voted and 12 teams from each theme moved on to Round Two.
Christina Reynolds’ team project centered around reducing emissions in the transportation sector by promoting electric vehicles. Her team created a model that combines Zipcar with Uber, an electric vehicle fleet with a subscription membership with access to vehicles, as needed. One differentiator was the availability of alternative vehicles, like trucks, vans, hybrids, to help bridge the hesitancy people have about making a total leap to electric vehicles.
“This was my first experience with this type of incubator conference, I am very glad that I participated,” said Reynolds.
In Round Two, the teams pitched their implementation plans to a group of external judges, which included industry experts, investors, and entrepreneurs. From there, teams were chosen to move on to the Final Round. The top two teams pitched their plans at a “Dragon’s Den.” The Final Round was modeled after the television show Shark Tank, with a panel of four experts choosing the winning teams.
Kevin Fries said, “Beyond the project, it was a really valuable and enjoyable experience. I’ve been able to break into a network of people with similar visions about the future of sustainable development and how to get there.”
“The organizers really did create a global community for sustainability. With each year they host UNLEASH, the community will continue to become larger and larger, ” said Christina Reynolds.
Christina Reynolds is an Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student, and Professor Christian Lastoskie is her faculty advisor.